The civilizational crisis of our age, in my view, is defined by capitalism’s inability to generate incomes for the majority of humanity, to provide jobs and meaningful social roles, end fossil fuel emissions, and translate revolutionary biological advances into public health. These are convergent crises, inseparable from one another, and need to be seen in their complex ensemble, not as separate issues. But to put it in more classical language, the super-capitalism of today has become an absolute fetter on the development of the productive forces necessary for our species survival.
Two of my last three posts on covid-19 have featured the word ‘questions’ in their titles. In an exchange below the second of those, written yesterday, I wrote of:
… people on all sides having difficulty accepting the reality of uncertainty and – like kids in the schoolyard threatening one another with “my dad’s gonna beat up your dad” – citing their experts of choice as if cherry picked scientists and cherry picked findings could somehow deliver a decisive verdict on a matter as complex as this.
I’ve seen people I respect adopt messianic tones as they toss inflammatory terms around like confetti. “Cowards”, shriek those who insist this is no worse than flu, and that those who accept CV-19 as a new and grave threat must ipso facto be frit by mainstream ‘fear porn’. “Idiots”, bellow back those who say anyone questioning the lockdown must be a conspiracy wingnut ….
I wish people weren’t quite so damn sure of themselves, but as uncertainty rises, so does our compulsion to embrace the illusion of certainty.
Questions, questions and more bloody questions. Here’s three more. One, how deep must our Western intelligentia heads be buried in the sand to deem our lifestyles compatible with – and mysteriously decoupled from the geographically skewed suffering of – a planet shared by eight billion people?
Two, what kind of deranged coincidence theorists must we be to suppose a system that makes a tiny few fabulously wealthy, while condemning billions to wretched subsistence, just happens to be the best possible way of organising social relations for the task of producing the material conditions of human existence?
Three, what will it take to open our eyes to the truth that those now globalised social relations make pandemics like the current one inevitable, recurring and – the market driven search for vaccines notwithstanding – increasingly unsolvable?
Viruses hijack the genetic machinery of invaded cells to make copies of themselves. Viruses based on DNA have a built-in proof-reading mechanism to ensure accurate replication, but RNA viruses don’t. Influenza A, with 4 genes (corona has 8), is so error prone in reproduction it probably hovers on the edge of extinction, pushing rate of mutation to the limit, a million times faster than DNA-based viruses or cells. Spitting out so many different and inaccurate versions of one’s genome has a huge advantage in resisting the human immune system. This is why influenza A changes annually and continues to sicken humans despite many previous infections.
Mutations usually occur in the ‘heads’ of the two to three proteins on the virus’s surface that allow it to “dock” on a human cell and then enter. Those are the sites that annual vaccines target. But the “stalks” of these proteins are stable and don’t mutate. Virtually all researchers agree that the tools exist to fashion a broadband vaccine that incapacitates the invariant stalks thus conferring general immunity against all strains that might last for years. The research is out there, but Big Pharma won’t develop or manufacture such a vaccine because it is not profitable. (If given a radical design for a car that lasts for a lifetime, would GM manufacture it?)
The above quote, and my opener, are from an interview with Mike Davis: writer, historian and Distinguished Emeritus Professor at University of California, Riverside. He’s a recipient of a McArthur Fellowship and the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. More important than any of these things, in this interview (2900 words) he offers the best overarching perspective – which is to say an anti-imperialist perspective enriched by a thorough grounding in relevant science – I’ve so far seen on the pandemic. It begins:
Some viruses have natural breeding grounds, like cholera for instance. Almost all cholera outbreaks originate in the warm, fecal-rich waters of the Gulf of Bengal. Others have permanent homes in animal families: plague in rodents, influenza in wild birds, yellow fever in monkeys and coronaviruses in bats. Influenzas usually emerge in the south of China: an inadvertent consequence of one of civilization’s greatest success stories. For several millennia, the farming system of southern China, which subsequently spread through southeast Asia, has been the most productive on earth, with domestic ducks and chickens raised side-by-side with pigs in rice fields that produce two harvests a year. Lots of protein with a double portion of carbs. But the flooded paddies attract migratory birds that often pass on new flu strains to ducks and chickens, who in turn infect pigs, an animal whose immune system closely resembles our own. The leap from swine to man is easy and sometimes catastrophic. Since pigs can acquire flu from birds and humans, a double infection can lead to the “reassortment” of their gene segments and the creation of a hybrid virus with wild bird lethality that also has a key to enter human respiratory cells. The result is a pandemic, as in 1918-19.
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